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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

The Development of Public Libraries in Japan After World War II

Yoshitaka Kawasaki (Kyoto University)
Genjiro Yamaguchi (Tokyo Gakugei University)
Ryoko Takashima (Hokariku Gakuin Junior College)


In Japan public libraries used to be frequented only by antiquarians engaged in research or students who needed to study there. The library was a place for limited use and often as a study room. Since the mid-1960s, however, a new attitude has been introduced toward the public library, using such catchwords as "to guard the people's right to know"; "to ensure free and equal access to in formation for all people". This paper presents a brief outline of the history of public libraries in Japan after World War II.



Through the l950s public libraries in Japan were frequented only by scholars engaged in research or by students who needed a place to study. The library was a place for limited use, and often just a study room. Since the mid-l960s, however, a new attitude towards the public library has been introduced. The public library is now described by such catchwords as a place "to guard the people's right to know" and "to ensure free and equal access to information for all people". This paper presents a brief outline of the history of public libraries in Japan after World War II.

1. Public Libraries before World War II

Before the war, public libraries in Japan had been governed by the Imperial Decree for Libraries. The basic idea of this decree was that library services were benefits flowing from the Emperor to his people, and that the public library was a means to strengthen the political constitution of Japan. This decree defined a central library system which facilitated state control over prefectural and local public libraries. It also permitted user fees, and most libraries chose to charge these fees.

2. The Library Law (1950)

The present Library Law was enacted after the war, in April l950. This law, adopted under the direction of the US Occupational Forces, has the following provisions, among others: Forbidding of fees for any library service; authorization of local governments to establish public libraries; recognition of the importance of professional librarians; establishment of a library advisory council in whic h citizens have opportunities to participate in the management of libraries. Through this law public libraries became in concept democratic institutions. It took much more time, however, to put these democratic concepts into actual practice.

In 1954 a group of young librarians established the Toshokan Mondai Kenyukai (The Society on Library Problems) to stimulate and activate the public library movement. In particular Kenkyukai tried to guarantee the people's right to know. Also in l954 the Japan Library Association adopted the "Library Bill of Rights", which declared the right of all people to free access to materials.

Nevertheless the level of library services at that time stayed very low. l958 statistics show that there were 723 public libraries in Japan with full-time staff of 3,447, while the amount of books lent annually per library was only 12,57l. There were many libraries that did not lend books at all. Most users were students who used only the desks and the chairs in the libraries. It was a difficu lt task to change the traditional ideas about public library use into democratic and user-oriented practice.

3. Publication of the Report on Management of Public Libraries in Medium and Small Cities (l963)

In October l960 the Japan Library Association established the Medium and Small Library Management Committee, consisting of seven young libraries who aimed to formulate a standard for the management of medium and small libraries. The committee spent two and a half years on a thorough survey of 7l public libries and published a report entitled The Management of Public Libraries in Medium and Small Cities. The report declares that the social role of the public library is to ensure the intellectual freedom of all the people of the community. It also points out that the essential function of the public library is to provide materials freely and effectively to all people of the community. The report criticizes the former management of public libraries whereby time and engery was devoted to administration and organization of materials rather than to users and the use of materials.

The committee proposed that in a city with a population of 50,000, a library should have a staff of twelve; 5,570 books should be added each year; and 2,628,000 yen ($26,000) should be allocated for books. At that time the average library staff in a city with a population of 50,000 was 3.7, and the average annual book budget was 488,800 yen ($4,888). Although the committee offered their recomme nded figures as a "minimum", many librarians criticized the recommended figures as idealistic. This report was significant in providing the foundation for the development of Japanese public libraries from the mid-l960s onward.4. The Unique Example of Hino City Public Library (l965)

Hino City Public Library started under the directorship of Tsuneo Maekawa in l965. "Anytime, anywhere, and to anyone" was the motto of the library. The library's managers stressed that the most important function of library services was to provide materials -- that is, circulation. In order to perform this function, a large book budget was necessary. The l965 book budget at Hino was 5, 000,000 yen ($50,000). From l966 to l970, the budget had risen to l0,000,000 yen ($l00,000) annually. This amount was surprisingly high compared to the libraries of other municipalities of the same size, whose average book budget was 50,000 yen ($500).

The strategy employed by Hino City Public Library was totally unique. Initially this library had no central building but started only with a bookmobile wich provided lending services over the whole city. The bookmobile stimulated citizen demand for better library services. The result was the establishment of six branch libraries; and finally, in l973, a central library building was erected. C irculation increased dramatically. The annual number of books lent per person increased every year -- from 2.l7 (l967), to 4.8l (l968), and to 5.43 (l969). The number of books lent to children was over 60% of all the books circulated. This was the first tangible evidence in Japan proving children to be the strongest supporters of public libraries.5. Publication of The Citizen's Library (l970)

The spirit of the Hino City Public Library infected neighbor munipalities, and thus brought about a revolution in public libraries in Japan. Following these libraries' development, the Japan Library Association published The Citizens' Library in l970. This book clearly emphasizes three areas of library services:

  1. circulation, which includes book request, book reservation services, and inter-library loans;
  2. children's services; and
  3. services for the entire community.

Many libraries used this publication for the development of their local library policies.

Progress in public library development since l970, however, was not achieved solely through the efforts of librarians. In l970 70% of all cities had public libraries, but only a small number of these cities had community branches, so public libraries remained unfamiliar facilities for most citizens. Under these conditions, some mothers who lived in suburban cities started to improve their child ren's reading environment by creating small collective home libraries. These librares were called "Kodomo Bunko" (home libraries for children). In l980 there were 4,406 libraries of this kind throughout Japan. Their services were inadequate in every respect. These mothers began to demand appropriate public library services, and, often in cooperation with professional librarians, petiti oned city councils, mayors or other public officials to establish libraries. The mayors or other responsible officials responded to the citizen's movement and made efforts to provide municipally-funded library services. For example, in the Tama Area in Tokyo the number of libraries increased remarkably, from ll in l97l to 79 in l976. The public library of Hino City (population l00,000) had 8 b ranches in l980. A table showing the development of Japanese public libraries is given at the end of this paper. In the two decades since l970, the number of libraries in Japan has increased form 847 to l,898 -- 2.2 times. 91% of Japanese cities now have libraries, compared to 70% in l970. The number of full-time staff has increased from 5,406 to l3,255 -- 2.5 times. And the number of books lent has increased from l9,644 to 262,709 -- 13.4 times. Annual books lent per person has increased from 0.l9 to 2.l3.6. Challenges for the Future

Public libraries in Japan still have a long way to go. For example, the national average of books lent per person annually is only 2.5l, and 72% of rural towns have as yet no public library service.

Furthermore, as a result of the currently declining economy, some public libraries have been forced to reduce their services. At the same time libraries are expected to adopt new computer technologies, which are expensive.

It is evident that, what with their legacy of difficulties inherited from the past, and with the new difficulties produced by the economic difficulties of the present, Japanese librarians will have to be more aggressive in asserting their professional agenda rather than simply reacting to the environment as it evolves.